Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Diana's Adventures in TV Land: The Odyssey

This was one of my favorite TV shows growing up, and I recently reacquired it. It's been a fun couple of weeks.

While attempting to retrieve his deceased father's telescope from some bullies, 12-year-old Jay Ziegler suffers a head injury and lapses into a coma. Moments later, he finds himself in a feudal, post-apocalyptic (yet strangely familiar) world, populated entirely by children. He befriends Alpha and Flash - mirror images of his best friend Donna and his rival Keith - and sets out on a quest that, like Jay himself, is constantly evolving.

It's strange to look back at this childhood relic with adult eyes. The first time around, my appreciation of "The Odyssey" was mostly superficial: it was a highly entertaining drama-adventure story, lead actor Illya Woloshyn was cute, and I loved Andrea Nemeth as Medea, an aristocratic sorceress who manipulates and blocks Jay at every turn.

But watching it today, I find I enjoy it on a much deeper level. Granted, most of the complexities I now see are relegated to subtext (this is primarily a children's show, after all), but it was still surprising to see how "The Odyssey" subtly dabbles with complicated psychological, social and pseudo-supernatural issues. For example, it's assumed that Downworld (the producers' name for the adult-free world) exists in Jay's head, and external circumstances in the real world affect events in Downworld... but there are also moments when Downworld appears to be a legitimate reality all its own. In the first-season finale, Medea steals an escape route from Jay, and moments later Donna sees an identical girl, comatose, wheeled in next to Jay's room as a faint afterimage of Medea appears, laughing victoriously. When next we see her, she claims to have visited Jay's world.

Another interesting aspect of the show is the way it toys with the traditional quest narrative. Many contemporaries of "The Odyssey" dealt with the conflict between a finite quest and a (potentially) infinite ongoing series by simply erasing the last stage of the quest, "Samurai Jack" being a particularly noteworthy recent example: at the start of every episode, Jack finds some way to get home, then he endures some horribly difficult trial to get to the MacGuffin du Jour, only to have it destroyed at the last minute. Lather, rinse, repeat.

But "The Odyssey" doesn't do that. Rather, the series is built on a chain of smaller quests, each of which is completed in its turn. At first, all Jay wants is to find a way home, but this gets subverted when he suspects that Brad, the formerly benevolent (and now mysteriously despotic) ruler of Downworld, may be his father. He then spends the rest of the first season trying to reach the Tower, the center of all Downworld authority and seat of Brad's power. And when he meets Brad, he finds a new objective, and spends the second season alternately wanting to escape Downworld and trying to return when the real world hits him with some particularly ugly truths. The second season ends on a literal world-smashing note.

Then the third season breaks the mold: four months have passed since Jay woke up, but adjusting to regular life is difficult because he's lost two years and can't quite seem to catch up. At the same time, he's also in a radically-changed Downworld where everyone's getting older and it's scaring them witless. The third season made some very interesting changes to the formula, aside from simultaneously taking place in both worlds: Jay's personality takes a darker turn, the abstract and oddly-wonderful locations of past seasons are replaced with shadowy tunnels, wild forests and the oppressive atmosphere of the Tower, and Downworld becomes much more strongly tied to Jay's feelings and wishes: his relationship with Medea becomes inversely proportionate to his relationship with her Upworld counterpart Sierra, whose boyfriend Mick becomes the scheming grand villain Finger in Downworld.

"The Odyssey" is one of the few shows that, to me, withstood the test of time; I can't think of many other shows I liked as a kid that could still appeal to me (though I stand by my preference of the Misfits over Jem and the Holograms - given the choice of tough women scratching out their claim to fame or ditzes mooning about double lives and true loves, I'll never regret picking the former). And while the acting can be awkward at times (these were children, after all, though a young Ryan Reynolds puts in a very amusing performance as the usurper Macro), it's still a lot more professional than other child-oriented and child-centric series I've seen.